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Awakenings

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Steve, Bruce and Natasha are eating an early breakfast in Tony's kitchen, and playing one of their favorite games. It's called Those Crazy New Yorkers, and these days it only sometimes ends with Steve mortified and blushing like crazy.

"Used condoms on the sidewalk, I can understand," Bruce says, gesturing with a piece of toast.

"Aw, Bruce, I'm eating." Steve moans in protest, and puts down his fork.

"It's the empty condom wrappers on the sidewalk that confuse me. Did you take the condom out on your way home, and then just carry it in your hand? Did you wrap up on a well-lit, crowded street, and then go inside to a party?"

"Please talk about something else," Steve says, "or I'll start telling you about the cockroaches we had when I was a kid."

"I don't know how you can talk about cockroaches at breakfast," Bruce says, shuddering.

"I don't know how you can talk about, about condom wrappers --"

"I'm just saying, what's it from? It's a mystery for the ages."

Natasha, eyes closed against the early-morning sunlight, says, "I was cleaning out my purse."

"Oh, jeez," Steve says, turning red. He was in the Army, for Pete's sake, and Natasha can still throw him for a loop.

Natasha grins without opening her eyes. "My favorite are the men who offer me marijuana when I walk past their stoop. Sometimes I pretend to be a cop, just to mess with them."

Steve laughs, and Bruce smiles around a bite of toast.

Steve says, "I was at the Rockaway boulevard stop on the A, and I saw this little girl imitating pigeon walks. She'd bob her head and wiggle her elbows when the pigeons were trotting around, and when they took off she'd flap her hands and cheer them."

Natasha and Bruce turn to look at him. "I don't know what to do with that," Natasha says.

Bruce says, "This is why those bloggers think you're not real. You can't even be cynical about New Yorkers."

Steve opens his mouth to argue, but before he can speak JARVIS says, "Steve, there's a visitor for you."

He frowns. "I'm not expecting anyone. Who is it, JARVIS?"

"Agent Andrew Ragallan of SHIELD, sir."

"That's great!" Steve says. "Let me put some more bread in the toaster. You guys remember Andrew, right?"

All of the Avengers have met Steve's Ducklings -- the first agents he trained in tactical defense four years ago. It's been two years since he last ran the training program, which is now mandatory for all incoming SHIELD agents, but he still has a soft spot in his heart for his first trainees.

The elevator chimes, and Steve hears JARVIS directing Ragallan through the penthouse into the kitchen. Ragallan appears in the doorway, stares at them for a second, and then closes his eyes. He is wearing casual clothing and carrying a briefcase. He looks terribly weary.

Steve walks over, and puts out a hand to shake. "Andrew, come in. Is everything all right? Come have some coffee." If there's anything Steve can do to help, he'll do it, but first they need to get Ragallan fed and settled.

Ragallan shakes his head, opening his eyes. He looks past Steve to Natasha, even as he reaches out a hand for Steve to shake. "Hi, I'm sorry, I can't stay long. I just wanted . . . Agent Romanoff, ma'am, I wasn't expecting you to be here."

Natasha narrows her eyes. "Should I leave?" she asks, dangerously calm.

"No, it's better that you're here, I'm just not, I wasn't --" he looks around the kitchen, anywhere but at the three Avengers, and fidgets with the handle of his briefcase.

"Andrew, sit down," Steve says gently. He's never seen Ragallan like this; the man is made up almost entirely of smiles and fierce determination. Steve has a feeling something is very, very wrong.

"No, please, just let me get this out, and then I'll go." He takes a breath and visibly steels himself, straightening his shoulders and lifting his chin. "Eighteen days ago, the asset known as the Winter Soldier was taken into SHIELD custody."

There's no movement at the table, but Steve is suddenly very aware of Natasha, of her stillness and her wide eyes.

Ragallan says, "We wouldn't have known about it, except Richie Fast was on the extraction team, and then last week he came to movie night. We were playing one of the old Captain America newsreels, and Richie saw the Howling Commandos, and he made the connection. He asked me to do some digging, and we found out -- well, almost everything."

Ragallan is visibly upset, and Natasha is so still she doesn't seem to be breathing, and Steve may have to defuse this situation very quickly. Steve glances at Bruce, who looks alarmed but steady.

"What is it, son?" he asks Ragallan.

Ragallan shakes his head, and looks at Natasha again. "I swear, ma'am, we wouldn't have invaded your privacy if --"

"You did well," Natasha says.

"Ma'am?" Ragallan asks, looking lost.

"Where is he?" Natasha asks.

"We don't know," Ragallan says. "None of us can find him."

Natasha frowns. "Do you have proof?"

"Just photographs. All the paperwork has been destroyed."

She shakes her head. "Fury doesn't want us to know. Why doesn't he want us to know?"

"Know what?" Steve bursts out. "What are you talking about? What's going on?"

Natasha glances at him, and back to Ragallan. "I'm guessing he's involved," she says, tipping her head at Steve.

"Very involved," Ragallan agrees.

"Everyone," Bruce says, "I think we should lay all our cards out on the table, before Steve or I get upset and break said table without meaning to."

Natasha nods, and Ragallan opens his briefcase and takes out a slim file folder, holding it like it might explode. He says, "The Winter Soldier, former assassin of the Red Room," Steve jolts when he hears the name, and turns to stare at Natasha. She is watching Ragallan with singular focus. "Is also Sergeant James Barnes of the 107th Division of the United States Army, last seen in Austria in 1943." He puts down the open folder next to Steve's coffee and the remains of Steve's pancakes, and steps away.

Steve hears a roaring in his ears, and for the first time since he got the serum he wonders if he might pass out.

There are three photographs, all blurry, all unmistakable. A crowd of people, and off to the left there is a profile and a bit of shoulder. A still from security footage, taken from behind, of a man with long hair, a bulky coat and a metal hand being escorted by SHIELD agents into an elevator. Another security still, this time a shot of a closed door with a small, high window. Through the window, Steve can see half a face, bruised and turned away. It doesn't matter how blurry they are; Steve knows. This is Bucky. Bucky is alive.

Ragallan says, "I don't know why nobody put it together before now -- or maybe they did."

Natasha gets up and walks behind Steve, and he hears her quiet gasp. "Who knows about this?" she asks.

"All the first trainees still in SHIELD, ma'am. Fast, Li, Alvarez, me, Cooper, Ambrose, and Peters."

"We can count on your discretion," she says. It isn't a question.

"Of course," Ragallan says.

Natasha puts a hand on Steve's shoulder, and he leans into it, still staring at the photographs. He wants to thank Ragallan for bringing this to them; he wants to thank Natasha. But he can't speak, can only touch the tips of his fingers to the image of Bucky's coat, Bucky's face.

Natasha says, "Fury will know you came to see us. You're going to get in trouble when he finds what information you passed along."

"We know," Ragallan says. "We're ready."

Bruce says, "Are you sure you wouldn't like some coffee?" and Steve wants to thank him, too, for his wonderful Bruce-ness, even while the whole world is being rearranged.

"Actually, yes, thank you. I have a thermos." There is the sound of a chair scraping along the tile, and rustling sounds, the pop of a thermos cap, hushed thank yous and you're welcomes.

"What's your plan now?" Natasha asks.

"Lay low, let you take the next step, give you whatever help you need," Ragallan tells her.

"Thank you," she says. "This means. Thank you." There is the sound of footsteps, the ding of the elevator, and then Ragallan is gone.

He hears Natasha and Bruce getting more coffee, and then Bruce says softly, "What is this?"

Natasha says, "I don't know, I'll tell you later." Natasha always knows, when her voice is like that, but Steve doesn't look up and Bruce doesn't question her.

Tony and Pepper should be coming in soon, and then Clint will saunter in, and Jane will stumble up from her lab, where she keeps a cot to sleep on when Thor is back in Asgard. Steve usually loves mornings like this, but right now he wishes himself far away.

Natasha puts a hand on his arm. "You need some privacy," she says. "Come on."

It's an effort to make himself close the folder, but he lets Natasha lead him to the elevator and down to his floor, through his living room and into his bedroom. She sits him down on his bed, and opens the folder on his nightstand, and says, "I'll be outside the door if you need anything."

Later, he will need to ask questions, and worry, weep over that horrible metal hand, and make plans, but right now Steve doesn't need one single thing. Bucky is alive.

-----

It's maybe an hour later when Steve comes back to himself. He'd been remembering, in a way he hasn't let himself in years: the war, the Howling Commandos, Bucky's steady presence at Steve's back. The particular corner of Peggy's mouth when she was about to smile. Jim Morita's cackling laugh and stories of California. The way Bucky would huddle into his pea coat on cold winter nights, and tell ghost stories that would make even Dum Dum Dugan shiver. Bucky, Bucky, Bucky.

He comes back to himself with a thud, remembering breakfast and his team, his life, and the way Natasha brought him down to his bedroom and offered to stand guard. He opens the door to find her sitting with her back against the wall, face hidden in her tucked-up knees.

Steve sits down next to her, and says, quietly, "I'm sorry I left you out here."

Natasha tells her lap, "I would have asked if I needed somebody."

"Still," Steve says.

Natasha huffs a laugh, and looks up at him. She doesn't look like she's been crying, but there's something rough about her expression that makes Steve want to put his arm around her. He stays where he is, having learned from experience that you don't hug Natasha without express permission.

"Do you want to talk about it?" he tries instead.

Natasha shakes her head, but then she says, "I -- you know the Red Room?"

"Just that they trained you, and others. That they hurt you."

Natasha lifts the corners of her mouth, but it isn't a smile. "My first mentor was -- not kind, exactly, but almost. He taught me to protect myself, and to take care of myself. I think I would have gone crazy, given up, if he hadn't been there. The Red Room took him away because he was too kind. They gave me other trainers. I didn't see that man again until the Berlin Wall came down. The whole facility was chaos, children were killing handlers, dying, there was fire everywhere. The man came and got me out, gave me a passport and some money, told me who to contact if I wanted to find work. I never saw him again. I thought he was dead. But he's the man from those pictures. The Winter Soldier."

"Bucky Barnes," Steve says.

"Bucky Barnes," Natasha agrees.

"And his hand?" Steve asks.

"Arm," Natasha says, and Steve sucks in a quick, hurt breath. "He had it the whole time I knew him."

They sit there for a few minutes, while Steve tries to fit this new story into his knowledge of Bucky. He says, "What do you need?"

"To find him and repay him, somehow. We weren't friends, but I owe him my life many times over."

"Okay," Steve says.

"What do you need?" Natasha asks.

Steve says, "To find him and bring him home."

Natasha rests her head on his shoulder for a moment, just the space of a breath, and then she gets up and offers Steve a hand. "Let's go get Tony, and see what we can do," she says.

-----

It takes Tony almost two days to find where Bucky is being held. In that time, they try and fail to get in touch with Thor, Steve destroys six specially reinforced punching bags, and the entire team demolishes a small mountain of Thai food. They could go through Agent Hill, who's been their handler since the Battle of New York, but Steve has a feeling the only thing that will work is going right to the source.

Those two days of restlessness are almost worth it, when they all march into the wide-open main room of Fury's secret Hoboken office ("Really, Jersey?" Tony asked, and Steve tried not to agree) in full uniform, spreading out in that silly V formation Clint made them practice, and Fury looks surprised, aggravated, and slightly wary at the sight of them.

"Where is he?" Steve asks.

Fury says, "Oh, Christ."

"We're asking you as a courtesy," Tony points out. "We know exactly where he is."

Fury points at him. "You are an unbelievable pain in my ass," he says. The agents around them have barely even looked up from their computers. Everyone is used to Fury and the Avengers by now.

Steve says, "Director Fury -- Nick," and Fury looks at him. "Where is my friend?"

Fury sighs, and seems to collapse on himself all at once. "There was a very specific reason I didn't tell you," he says.

"And me?" Natasha asks, stepping forward. It's the first time she's spoken since they left the Tower and got in Tony's car. "What was your reason for not telling me?" Fury meets her eyes for a moment, and then looks away. "Show us where he is," she says.

Fury nods and starts walking.

The inside of the building is laid out like the inside of the Helicarrier, which Steve would find amusing any other day, but right now he just finds it useful. It will be much easier to remember his way back, if he has to break Bucky out after hours.

Fury leads them down three flights of stairs, to a sub-basement level not on Tony's maps, and then into a small conference room with a live video feed of a man sitting at a kitchen table and reading a large book. The man has longish dark hair shot through with gray, and a sad, strange metal arm, but the way he reaches up to rub his forehead is as familiar as Steve's childhood. This is Bucky. Steve drinks in the sight of him.

Fury says, "Before anything else happens, you need to understand. That man in there is not the man you knew, Captain. He's not even the man you knew, Agent Romanoff. That man in there escaped from a splinter faction of the Red Room four years ago. He blew the facility when he left, which got him on our radar, but it was over a year before we tracked him down. My medical staff worried that he would snap and burn down a school or something, but when we caught up with him, he was living quietly. From what we could tell through observation, he had integrated the different parts of his personality enough to live peacefully, and so we gave him a guardian angel and left him to it."

"Why didn't you say anything then?" Steve asks.

"Because we didn't know -- we don't know -- how dangerous he still is. It was safer to leave him where he wanted to be. And everybody deserves some rest. Dr Banner, you can attest to that."

"Please leave me out of this," Bruce says, but he looks torn.

"All right, so what changed?" Steve asks.

"Some damn fool dissident group from Latveria caught up with him, and snatched him up before we could bring in reinforcements. They had him for three days before we could break him out, and in that time they did something. We don't know what. He agreed to stay here with us under observation until we deemed he wasn't a threat, on one condition."

"And what's that?" Tony asks.

Fury looks at Steve, and the kindness in his expression is terrifying. "That I not tell Captain Rogers where he is."

Steve takes it like a hit, rolls, and comes up swinging. "That's ridiculous," he says. "If he knew I was alive he would have wanted to find me."

"Like I said, Cap, this is not the man you knew."

"Bullshit," Steve says, and is viciously pleased at Fury's surprise. "If I had known he was alive I would have done anything to get him back. He would do the same for me."

"Well, now you've played my hand for me, so there's no use fighting about it," Fury says.

"All right, so what now?" Natasha asks.

"Now, I don't know. I suppose you want to talk to him."

"Yes," Natasha and Steve both say.

"All right, but you'll have to do it my way. Barnes has agreed to all our safety precautions; I'll need you to agree to them, too."

"And what are they?" Natasha asks.

"Communication by microphone and video link only, no more than one hour per day," Fury says promptly.

"That's fine," Natasha says.

"What? No, that isn't fine," Steve protests.

Natasha gives him a look that says trust me, and repeats, "That's fine."

It's enough for Fury.

Bucky is being kept a few doors away, in a tiny reinforced suite of rooms inside a large open space filled with cameras, alarms, and armed SHIELD agents. It is so much like the room Steve first woke up in that he flinches and has to look away for a minute. The communication room is next door. It has video feeds from every camera in the warehouse space and Bucky's little suite, as well as a heartbeat monitor and an infrared screen. It has microphones, and two small metal chairs for Steve and Natasha. The rest of the Avengers go wait outside.

He and Natasha look at each other for a minute, and then Steve says, "You go first."

Natasha says, "I'd rather not." She looks off-balance, now that they're finally here.

The central screen in the room shows Bucky, sitting still and quiet at the small table in the kitchenette. Steve walks up to the microphone, and clears his throat, imagining Bucky sitting up and smiling, Bucky running to give him a hug -- but that's not how this works, and as he watches Bucky sitting there, he doesn't have one single, solitary word inside of him. He looks back to Natasha, helplessly.

She says, "All right, me first then."

Natasha takes a deep breath, shakes her head once, and then says, "Hello, James," into the microphone.

On the screen, Bucky jumps and looks around. He grins. Steve knows that grin in his bones. "Наталья!" he says, "Я знал, что ты найдешь меня."

"English, James," Natasha says, but it comes out fond.

"Oh, English," Bucky scoffs. His voice is exactly the same. "I can't be poetic in English. But you're here, and I'm happy in any language. I knew you'd find me." His voice is the same, yes, but there is softness in it that Steve has only ever had for himself before. He bites his tongue. "I see you work for SHIELD now."

"You told me to find a patron."

Bucky laughs. "I meant a rich, angry baron in the Carpathians, but this is good, too. You can't beat saving the world. And how have you been?"

"Busy," Natasha says. Bucky laughs again. "James, I brought a friend to see you."

"Natalia, today you are my only friend," Bucky says, and Steve flinches.

Natasha says, "No, I mean an old friend."

Bucky's smile fades, and he starts to look worried. "Natalia," he says. "I don't think that's a good idea."

"James --"

"I mean it. I don't want to see -- I don't want to see anyone. Do whatever you have to do, just, please."

It's me, Steve thinks. Bucky doesn't want to see me. It makes him ache deep in his chest. He looks at Natasha, and she shakes her head.

It doesn't matter. He has to at least try. He leans toward the microphone, clears his throat, and says, "Heya, Bucky."

Bucky's eyes go wide, and he looks around frantically. "Oh my god. Steve. Steve."

"Yeah," Steve says, shaky. "I'm here."

"You shouldn't be here, you need to go."

"Bucky," Steve says helplessly.

Bucky doesn't answer, just keeps looking around. He gets up and starts scanning the walls, the ceiling, searching. The silence is excruciating. It takes him maybe thirty seconds find a hidden security camera, and he comes and sits by it and looks right at the lens, so it's almost like they're looking at each other.

"Steve, you gotta listen to me. It is not safe for you to be around me --"

"That's ridiculous --" Steve says.

"And I don't want to see you!" Bucky bursts out. "Go away, go home." He is staring straight at the camera, looking strained, and he was never a good liar at the best of times.

"Bucky," Steve says seriously. "I'm going to get you out of here."

"No, Steve, no no no no," Bucky says.

Steve walks away from the microphone and out the door, past Natasha and a surprised-looking Bruce, past Clint and Tony too fast to see their expressions. The warehouse room with Bucky's suite inside it is just down the hall, and Steve has the door off the hinges before anyone can even react. An alarm starts to blare.

"Uh," Tony says, "Is this the best idea, Cap?"

"No," Steve says, "But I'm doing it." He walks past shocked SHIELD agents toward the second door, and when they come after him he knocks them down easily. The second door comes off its hinges as quickly as the first, and then Steve has one beautiful, perfect instant of being face to face with his best friend in the world, before Bucky's eyes go cold and he kicks Steve in the neck with his bare foot, making him grunt and cough, propelling him into the wall.

Steve lands and is up in a moment, spinning around, arms up, and then stops. Natasha is already in front of Bucky, facing off against him. She says, "James," but Bucky's eyes are still cold and he lashes out without answering.

It doesn't matter. With Natasha's electrified gauntlets and reinforced boots, it's over in seconds.

The rest of the Avengers tumble into the doorway of the suite, staring down at Bucky. "Is everything okay?" Bruce asks.

Steve shakes his head, feeling busted cartilage slip back into place in his neck. He can hear more SHIELD personnel running down the hall toward them. The alarm is still going, and maybe Fury will never let him back, and Bucky had been ready to kill him, and to kill Natasha, and, "No," he says, hoarse and painful. "It's not."

Steve leaves them to Natasha and the awful scene in the room. He pushes past the SHIELD agents, marching out into the corridor, and then spins and slams his fist through the metal wall by the doorway. "Fuck!" he yells.

Clint comes out, takes a look at the hole in the wall and then looks back at the scene inside. He says, "Yup."

-----

Fury doesn't bother yelling at them, which is a bad sign. "I might actually be grateful to you," he says grudgingly. "We had eighteen days and we didn't find out one damn thing. You walk in, and an hour later we know -- well, you saw what all we know. Hell, we were about to let him back out into the world."

"What is it exactly that we know?" Tony asks.

"Sleeper programming," Natasha says. "I thought the Latverian dissidents only had him for three days. That's not enough time for the kind of sophistication I saw back there."

"The man has dissociative identity disorder at best." Fury says. "At worst he's a hacked laptop waiting for some idiot to come along and upload him with a virus."

"You're making him sound like a piece of code," Bruce says. "But he's not. He's a person."

Natasha says, "The Red Room was very good at turning people into pieces of code."

Nobody has an answer for that.

Fury says, "This changes the game a little bit. We were just keeping him under observation and giving him low-level psych evals, but I'm going to offer our best psychologists for Barnes, to see if we can help him integrate. Maybe he'll want to stop surviving, and start living. That means an indefinite stay, with limited access to outsiders, and we'll be throwing a lot of ideas at the wall to see what sticks. You'll get regular updates from me, if you want them. Now that you know, it's a waste of time for me to try and keep it secret."

It seems like the meeting is coming to a close, and Steve can't think of anything to say to make it go on longer, to get more information out of Fury. "I'm coming back tomorrow," he says instead.

Fury nods. "As of an hour ago, all of the Avengers were granted access to the entrance of this facility, the main control room, and Barnes's observation room. Access that will be revoked if you do anything as fool-stupid as what you did today."

Steve says, "Thank you, sir," even though he doesn't want to. He wants to yell, and throw things, and fix Bucky right now. But he can't, so he lets Fury take the burden for him.

Tony says, "Good." Natasha looks satisfied but doesn't say anything.

On their way out of the facility, they pass through the main computer room with its open space and banks of monitors. Steve looks up from where he was staring at his marching feet, and Li is sitting at one of the computer consoles, chewing a strand of hair and typing lightening fast like she always does. It should be a surprise, but somehow it isn't. She glances at him as he passes, and she nods slightly, and then she puts her head back down and ignores them as they file out of the building and onto the street.

Before Tony takes off flying, he turns to Steve and says, "You know this isn't over, right? Whatever's happening with Barnes, whatever Fury's looking for, we're going to take care of it."

Bruce and Clint start nodding, looking earnest and sure, and Natasha just looks at him, like she did before he threw her into the air that first time, like she has before a hundred other fights they've fought together and won.

Steve almost smiles.

-----

When they get home, Natasha drags him into the gym with her, where Clint is already waiting. "You need to stop thinking about him," she says, like it's easy. Steve glares, and she looks back impassively. After a minute, Steve looks away.

Clint holds up his quiver of arrows and says, "Okay, who wants to play a game?"

"Hit It?" Natasha asks.

Steve thinks of protesting, and then gives up. "I'm in," he says.

Clint says, "I always imagine a little 'tm Tony' logo whenever anyone says that name."

Natasha nods like that was an answer, and says, "I'll go get my special gauntlets."

-----

Steve and Clint started playing around with the shield and arrows sometime in the first year they were teammates, when Steve didn't ever think he'd find his footing in this new world. It's saved his sanity more than once during long restless days and weeks of waiting.

Steve hefts his shield, pulls back, and launches it into the air. It hits a support beam in the ceiling and ricochets off to the left, almost crashing into the window before one of Clint's arrows knocks the rim and sends it spinning back at almost full speed, right to where Natasha has thrown up a metal free-weight that hits the underside and sends it flipping end over end toward Steve's head, so that he has to duck and grab it and swing around to launch it again.

"Five dollars says I get the best hit," Clint says, from where he's hanging upside-down from the rafters. Steve didn't even see him move.

"Ten says I do," Natasha says, adjusting the special reinforced gauntlets Tony made her last year, when she decided she wants to use her forearms as ricochet points.

The rules aren't so much "keep the shield in the air" as they are "do something fun." Sometimes they can keep the shield up and moving dangerously for minutes at a time. Sometimes Clint and Natasha will try to block Steve from catching it, or send it flying at him again and again so that he has to jump around the room to dodge it. Sometimes Tony joins in, when he's wearing his suit, but Thor was banned after he broke a hole in the wall, and Bruce abstains. JARVIS sometimes tapes their games, and plays them for Pepper, Bruce, Hill or even Fury. Pepper says it's better than watching professional sports.

Today they go for three hours, far longer than usual, until they're all sweating and exhausted. It ends when Clint staggers dramatically, and lays himself face-down on the wrestling mats, groaning. Natasha puts her hands on her knees, head down, breathing deep. Steve uses his shirt to wipe sweat off his forehead.

Natasha says, "You owe me money," and Steve is impressed with how calm her voice sounds. Her face is bright red with the exertion, but you couldn't tell from listening to her.

"Leave me to die," Clint says, his face muffled by the mat.

"Ten dollars, Barton," she says, and walks on shaky legs toward the changing room. She nods at Steve as she passes, and he nods back. He goes over and face-plants on the mat next to Clint. They lie there in companionable silence for a while, until Steve can finally talk about it.

"Thanks," he says, rolling over and sitting up.

Clint waves a hand weakly. "Don't mention it."

"No, I mean it," Steve says. Clint would brush off a presidential pardon if one were offered. Steve has learned he needs to be stubborn when it matters.

Clint opens his one visible eye and looks at Steve for a moment, and then pushes himself up until he's sitting on his ankles, looking serious. "You know we," he starts, and then rubs the back of his neck.

Clint was the first real friend Steve had after he woke up. These people have become a part of him, and he would trust them almost before he trusts himself. "I know," he says.

-----

True to his word, Steve is back at the Hoboken facility at eight a.m. the next morning, dressed in civilian clothes. Natasha is with him, as is Bruce. Clint is up on the Helicarrier, seeing if any of his contacts know anything about the Latverians taken into custody, while Tony is at Stark Tower working with JARVIS to see what he can find about the facility where Bucky was found.

Fury scowls when he sees them, but doesn't stop them. "He's asked for you," he tells Steve.

Bruce and Natasha stay outside the observation room while Steve goes in. Bucky is in his living room, lying on his back on the couch, arms at his sides and one leg on the floor. He doesn't move when Steve clears his throat into the microphone.

"Hey, pal," Bucky says, all bluster. "They tell me you weren't hurt, but they coulda been lying to save my fragile feelings."

Steve rubs his neck and says, "No, I wasn't hurt."

"Good, that's good." He licks his lips, sniffs quietly, swipes a hand along his jaw, little tics that Steve remembers. "I figure maybe we can start over. Hey, how are ya, it's been seventy-five years, did you hear about the Dodgers?"

"Bucky," Steve says.

"It's this or nothing, pal. I mean it."

And if that's Steve's only choice, then it's an easy one.

He says, "Yeah, I heard about the Dodgers. It's a crying shame."

At the end of a half hour, Steve leaves the little observation room, and Natasha walks inside. He goes with Bruce to the tiny conference room down the hall, and they turn off the monitors showing Bucky's little suite, and sit there in quiet for a good long time. Finally Bruce offers, "If you want to talk about anything."

"Not really," Steve says.

That's the first day.

-----

The second day, it's just Steve and Natasha, and Natasha goes in first. When she comes out, she gives him a small nod and places a hand on his shoulder. For a moment he feels like he can take on anything, accomplish anything. Then it passes, and he walks into the communications room and sits down by the microphone.

Bucky is already settled by the camera. "So you're a superhero, now," he says, grinning. "That fancy outfit's still good for something."

Steve tenses. He thought something might have changed, but if this is still how Bucky wants this, then all right. "Yeah, they let me bash heads sometimes. You haven't seen the papers?"

Bucky waves a hand. "Papers," he says disdainfully. "Are they treating you okay?"

"It's good. There's a whole team besides Natasha and me, you should meet them. They're nothing like Dum Dum, of course, but they've got their own charms."

"Well, who could ever be as charming as Dum Dum?" Bucky says, and then, "Hey, when was the last time you were in Paris? Did you see how much it's changed?"

-----

That night, Steve finds Natasha out on her balcony, staring up at the clouds. He comes and sits down next to her, resting his arms on the metal railing, letting his feet swing fifty stories above the street. He turns to look at her, and opens his mouth to speak, and then he notices her gaze: she isn't idly looking, she is concentrating as fiercely as she does anything else. It takes Steve five whole minutes to spot what she's staring at, and then he laughs. It's a satellite, lit brightly enough to be seen through the cloud cover; it's probably Tony's communication satellite, with the path it's taking and the timing of the blinking lights. Natasha turns and smiles at him.

Steve lets himself have a moment of uncomplicated happiness, that he understands his team and that they all, in their own ways, are watching out for each other.

Then he asks, "What do I need to know?"

"It depends on what your purpose is."

"Come on, Natasha," he says.

"I mean it. Is your purpose to run in and try to fix it? Because then I'd tell you everything, but you have to know that it's an awful lot to fix. Or is your purpose to be there for your best friend, to be whatever he needs? Because then I'd tell you a little, maybe not as much as you'd like."

"I just," Steve sighs. "He won't talk to me. Does he talk to you?"

"A little," Natasha admits.

"What does he think, that I'd be angry?"

"We killed a lot of people, separately and together," Natasha points out. "James is the kind of man who would feel guilty about that."

"And you?" Steve asks, and then wishes he could take it back.

"I've," she pauses, "learned to reconsider my actions."

Steve nods, because he knows how to translate that. When Natasha reconsiders something, it's important. "And nobody's opinion would have changed you?" he guesses.

"No, but James and I are different. I will tell you," she says, and Steve listens as hard as he can. "There was a six month period right before James was taken away from me, when all the assets were allowed to keep icons of Russian saints. The handlers thought it would motivate us. I chose not to, but James wore one on a chain around his neck." She stands up, and reaches down a hand to him. "Hit It?" she asks.

"You're going to break my shield," Steve grumbles, but he takes the offered hand. He follows her, because she is team, and because he always will.

-----

The next morning, he comes prepared.

"Bucky, hey, I've been thinking about something," he says as soon as he sits down at the microphone.

"Never a good sign," Bucky says, but he seems game enough when he comes over to sit by his usual camera.

"Well, I've been wondering if there was anything you could do that would make me stop thinking of you as my best friend in the world."

Bucky frowns and looks away. "Steve --"

"Because obviously that's an important question. I mean, if I caught you torturing kittens, maybe --"

"Steve, come on, don't joke about this."

"Just who the hell do you think is joking?" Steve says, angry. "You want to know what I think? I think there is not one single thing you could do, that would make you less than family."

Bucky's face twists like he's trying not to cry. "Please, don't," he says.

"There is nothing in this whole world that would make me think less of you. Do you know what I've seen since I woke up? I can imagine a lot, and there is nothing I can imagine that would -- well, there's just nothing. That's all."

Bucky is still turned away, his face still twisted up like he's in pain. "I don't know if I can talk about it, I don't think --"

"Who said I wanted you to talk about it?" Steve asks. "Don't shut me out, all right? I just found you again."

"All right," Bucky says quietly.

They don't speak again for the rest of Steve's time, except once as he's getting up to leave. Bucky reaches out, and rests a hand near the security camera, looking right at it, and says, "You too."

-----

On his way out that day, Steve stops in the mess to get a cup of coffee. Natasha seems jittery, like she wants to run off by herself for a while, so Steve says, "I don't need company," and she gives him a half-salute before she heads out the door.

He's in line to pay for his coffee, when he feels a quiet presence at his elbow. It's Li, looking tiny and harmless, hiding all of her danger under a skirt suit and a tidy bun. Steve smiles at her, delighted, and feels some of stress of the last few days slip away from him. "Hello!" he says. "Fancy meeting you here." He can play harmless, too.

Li smiles back. "Yeah, I'm on loan from the Chicago office," she says. "It's good to see you."

It hits Steve, then, that he has no idea what this facility is for besides keeping Bucky prisoner. Li's specialty is infrastructure, both tearing down and building up, and the idea of her being needed in a holding facility in Jersey is laughable. There's something else going on here, and he may need to know what it is. The thought makes him tired.

Li must see something in his face, because she opens her mouth, pauses, and then says, "I was actually just about to take my lunch break. Would you like to go for a walk?"

"Yeah, I'd really like that," Steve says. He lets her lead him out of the oppressive gray of the building into the Hoboken sunshine.

The office building is somewhere downtown, Steve doesn't know the area. Li seems to know exactly where she's going as she deftly leads him through the lunchtime crows to a smaller, quieter side-street where they can stroll and talk without being bothered. Steve offers her his arm, because some things shouldn't ever go out of fashion, and she gives him a sardonic look before tucking her hand into the crook of his elbow. They walk for a few blocks in silence.

Finally, Li says, "I'm sorry, I don't really have any news for you."

Steve looks up at the traffic lights, the buildings, and the sky. "It's fine, you don't need to -- it's my problem, you and the others have already done enough."

Li hums thoughtfully, and then mercifully changes the subject. "I'm actually really happy to be on the east coast. My sister lives in Philadelphia, so I can visit her on the weekends. Did I tell you she's going to have a baby?"

Steve smiles. "No, you didn't tell me. That's wonderful. Congratulations. This is Maureen, your sister I met at that barbecue last year, yes?"

Li seems to glow for a second. "Yeah, Maureen. I'm going to be an aunt. It's a girl, the doctors say. I think I'll still be in Hoboken when she's born."

Steve listens to Li talk about her family until her lunch break is over, and then walks her back to her door. He says, "Thanks for this."

Li raises an eyebrow. "For telling you about my family? You're welcome."

Steve says, "No, I mean," and can't find the words.

Li says, "I know," and disappears inside.

-----

Steve and Natasha go back again the next day, and the next, and the next. Sometimes Clint goes with them, sometimes Bruce, and sometimes they are by themselves.

Steve tells Bucky the story of how the Avengers got together, the story of his trainees, the story of that time they visited Asgard and Tony almost caused an interplanetary incident. Bucky starts to open up a little, speaks about the places he's traveled, shares funny stories of people he's seen or talked with. They don't discuss how Steve can walk out of there at the end of the day, or whether Bucky remembers how many people he killed, and how, and when. It's strained, but gets a little easier each day.

Twice more, Li finds him before he's about to leave the building, and takes him for a walk through the city. She tells him about her girlfriend Maya and the terrible sublet they found on the outskirts of Hoboken, their rescue dog Baxter, the night classes she wants to take. Steve is grateful for every minute of her company, the way he's grateful for everything in the future that keeps him alive, grounded, and sane.

The morning of the eighth day, Steve walks into the kitchen to find it strangely empty. Usually Natasha is there, dipping a croissant into coffee or munching fruit, looking as relaxed as he ever sees her, and they sit in companionable silence until Bruce or Tony stumbles in. Today, the coffee maker hasn't been turned on and the pans haven't been used.

"JARVIS," Steve says, "Where is Natasha?"

"Unknown, sir," comes the reply.

"What?" Natasha's whereabouts are never unknown. Most of the time JARVIS has her as 'On assignment for SHIELD,' but she's never just disappeared.

"I do know that she left under her own power, sir, and that she has asked not to be followed. She left a message for you and the other Avengers. Shall I play it for you?"

Steve wants very badly to know what the message says, but he has a feeling he won't be able to listen to it twice. "No, get the rest of the team and we'll listen to it together."

He fidgets with the metal bars Tony made him while he waits for the others to shuffle into Tony's living room, bending and unbending them, making pretzels and figure-eights. Bruce smiles sleepily when he sees Steve, and goes to sit on the end of the couch. "It always impresses me when you do that," Bruce says.

Steve shrugs, and bends the metal back again. It's a good exercise for his hands, and the metal won't weaken or bend or make that horrible screeching sound rebar makes after Steve has handled it a few times. "The other guy can do more than me," he says.

"Yeah, but I don't see him doing it," Bruce points out, and rests his head on the arm of the couch, eyes closed.

Tony wanders in, his hands covered in oil streaks. Pepper follows him in, a smudge of oil high up on her cheek. Steve looks down so they won't see him smile. He adores the way they are together, but it always gives him a pang, reminding him of lost hope of a life with Peggy.

Thor still isn't back, so Clint's arrival marks the last of them. Clint bounces in, wearing Donald Duck boxers, his arm guards and nothing else, the way he does when he wants to mess with Tony. He sees Pepper and almost walks back out the door again, but hesitates and instead plonks down on the couch next to Bruce. Steve ducks his head again, and waits to get control of his face. He loves his team with everything in him, and they are a comfort always.

"All right," he says, looking at all of them, and Tony raises a hand.

"Uh, we're missing somebody," Tony says.

"That's actually why I asked you all here. Natasha is off the grid, as of, uh, JARVIS?"

"Five thirty-six this morning, sir."

Two hours, then. Steve knows what she can do with even a two-minute head start. "She left under her own power, as far as I can tell, and asked that we not follow or investigate. JARVIS says she left a message for all of us."

Suddenly, Natasha's voice is all around them. Bruce and Pepper jump. "Hi, guys," she says drily. "I'm sure you're worried about me, even though you've met me before, and I imagine you want to track me down and try to help. Don't. This is my debt, and my mission. If Fury asks, I got word of a Ten Rings cell in Bosnia. But you should know, I'm looking for the word to wake the Winter Soldier -- no," her voice seems to falter for a moment, "to wake Bucky."

Steve sits straight up, and the metal in his hands makes a quiet protesting sound as he squeezes it past endurance.

"Well," she says wryly, "I don't know if it's a word. I think it will be just one pass-phrase, to undo the Latverian programming. I'll find out, and then I'll come back. Tony, don't try to track me remotely. You won't like what happens. Steve, please don't follow me. This is my rescue mission. I'll see you when I get back. Black Widow out."

They all sit there for a minute, just staring at each other, and then Tony says, "Why didn't she give you three any orders?"

Clint says, "Because she trusts us not to be idiots."

"I'll trust as far as you shoot," Tony grumbles, but he lets himself be pulled up by Pepper, and follows her toward the door.

"Good morning, everyone," Pepper says. "It's lovely to see you, as always. I'll try to join you for dinner tonight. JARVIS, please have some pancakes delivered."

"Of course, Ms. Potts," JARVIS says.

Bruce, Clint and Steve all look at each other for a minute, and then Bruce gets up and claps a hand on Steve's shoulder before he shuffles back toward the elevators. Clint takes off one of his arm guards and uses it to scratch his ankle. He says, "I know what you're thinking."

Steve sighs, and puts down the bar he was holding. It's ruined; he'll have to ask Tony for a new one. "What am I thinking?" he asks.

"You're thinking you should have known what Tasha was planning, you should be there with her."

Steve feels a hot bolt of shame and looks away.

"Well, you're stupid," Clint says.

"Hey --" Steve says, turning and glaring.

"No, come on, how long have we all known each other? You heard what she said, this is her mission."

"But it," it should be my mission too, Steve wants to say. I want so much for Bucky to be well, this should be my mission too.

Clint scratches his neck with the arm guard, and looks thoughtful. "Okay, I get it, I do. She's team and you're invested in the asset, I get that you want to be there."

Steve clenches his hands together until his knuckles turn white. He nods.

"But," Clint waves a hand, and shakes his head. "Okay, no, wait, let me start over. So if Phil came back, tomorrow, by magic, I'd be a god-awful fucking mess."

"What?" Steve stares at him. This is not at all what he was expecting, although maybe it should have been. It had taken Clint years to get over Coulson's death. He hadn't shown it much to anyone besides Bruce and Natasha, but Steve could see it in Clint's face sometimes. Tony had wondered, loudly and obnoxiously, if Clint and Coulson had been sweethearts, and that had led to a prank war Steve never wanted to revisit. In the end, Steve decided it didn't matter how Clint had loved the man; when you fought with someone, and protected them, they became a part of you. The loss was always devastating.

"Total mess. Grade A, one hundred percent." Clint waved a hand. "Would you get upset with me, if that happened?"

"No, of course not," Steve says, "But this is different."

"It's exactly the same," Clint says. "That's what I was telling you the other day. You're allowed to be a mess, with us. And Tasha's allowed to do her thing, the way she needs to."

"I don't," Steve says.

"And," Clint says, pointing a finger in his face, "sitting back and letting someone else do some work is not the betrayal you think it is."

Steve sits there for a long time, his thoughts running in circles. "I don't think I agree with you," he says finally, "But okay."

Clint shrugs. "Or you could fight her for it when you get back. I'm sure she'd love hearing you apologize for not stealing her op when she has you pinned with nothing but two toes and a paperclip."

Steve is forced to admit that here, at least, Clint is completely right. "I'll take that into consideration," he says.

Clint stands up, and straps his arm guard back on. "Sure you will. Come on, let's go to Jersey."

-----

The second shock of the morning comes when they get to the SHIELD office. Fury is waiting for them in the front lobby. He nods when he sees them, and says, "I'd like to try something, if you're willing."

Steve is definitely willing, although when he hears what it is, he starts to doubt the wisdom of SHIELD's research department, just a little.

"You've got to be shitting us," Clint says, when Fury tells them his plan.

Fury glowers. "Agent, do you really think pissing me off is the best way to endear yourself to me?"

Clint says, "No, sir, but seriously. Using a blindfold to bypass sleeper programming is like, like," he looks at Steve.

Steve says, "Like whacking somebody on the head to undo alien brainwashing?"

Clint opens his mouth, and then closes it.

It's not anything so simple as a blindfold, really. SHIELD's doctors believe that direct visual of the Avengers is the trigger the Latverians gave Bucky. They've already tested with video and audio recordings, and nothing else seems to have an effect.

"We're taking a risk, letting you in there with him. But as it stands, we can't learn anything else about his condition. This is the best next step."

The best next step is a cowl, covering Bucky's eyes, locked into place. Bucky will be able to put it on himself, but if he tries to take it off without a DNA scan from one of the Avengers or Fury's doctors, it will inject him with enough sedatives to drop him on the spot. On the one hand, it seems too simple to work. On the other hand, it seems absolutely awful.

Steve turns to Fury. "Is this really the best idea you've come up with, sir? I mean, no offense."

"If I put any energy into wanting you to think well of me, I'm sure I'd be offended," Fury says, and starts walking toward Bucky's room. "As it stands, however, I am happy to inform you that this is the best idea we could come up with, and I am bothered not one iota by your skepticism."

"That's good, I guess," Steve says faintly, and follows him down the hall.

-----

The actual test is a little anticlimactic. Bucky has already been sedated and had the mask put in place by the time Steve, Clint, Fury, and six SHIELD guards get there. There's a large woman from R&D leaning with her head by the food slot to Bucky's door, explaining to him how the cowl will work.

"Lady," Bucky says through the food slot, "I appreciate the help, but I know what a blindfold is. Plus you said all this already before you put the thing on."

The woman from R&D doesn't seem to hear him. "Please report if you feel any tension headaches or tightness, or if you can see any light around the edges of the mask."

"You mean it's bad if I can see light?"

"Sir," the woman says with exasperation.

"I'm not a sir, ma'am, I'm a Sergeant. I'm fine, I'm blind as a bat. You got some tape or something? I want to make X's over my eyes."

And then the door is opening, and Steve is pushing through the cluster of agents, coming right up to the doorway and looking in. Bucky stands there, looking small and thin and vulnerable in the bright light of the safe room. Steve stands there for a long time, just taking in the sight of him, and then he says, "Heya, Bucky."

Bucky's head jerks up, and the SHIELD agents all raise their guns, but then Bucky smiles shakily and says, "Where you been, Rogers?" and that's it, Steve is done waiting.

Steve takes three big steps into Bucky's room and hugs Bucky so hard his feet come up off the ground. Bucky smells the same, like wool and oranges, and he holds Steve tight, face tucked into Steve's neck, shaking a little.

Behind them, Fury says, "All right, people, show's over. Go back to what you were doing." There's the sound of booted feet shuffling away, and the outer door closing behind them.

Steve doesn't look, but he can hear Fury walk slowly toward them. He puts Bucky down but doesn't let him get more than an arm's reach away. When Fury is almost close enough to touch, Steve turns to look at him. Fury is, as always, unreadable.

"Sergeant Barnes, I'm SHIELD Director Fury. We've spoken before."

Bucky says, "Yes, sir, I remember your voice."

"Barnes, we're going to continue to observe you with the cowl, and if all goes well I can let you into selected areas of this facility, in the company of Captain Rogers and the other Avengers. You're probationary for a week. Congratulations."

With that, he turns and leaves, and it's just Steve, Bucky and Clint. It's just Steve and Bucky, in front of each other, for the first time in seventy-five years.

Up close, Bucky looks tired, and older. There are lines on his face that come from sadness and anger, not smiles, and the skin at his temples is veined and fragile-looking. Steve says, "You look kinda rough, there. Been taking care of yourself?"

Bucky's hands tense on Steve's shoulders, his metal hand gripping almost painfully tight. "I might need a little help, I think," he says softly.

At that, Steve can let him go. He turns, and Clint is there -- facing the door now, standing watch. "Hey, Bucky, I'd like you to meet someone. Clint," and Clint turns to look at him, "this is James Barnes, my best friend. We fought together during the war."

Clint walks over, taking care to make noise, and reaches out a hand. "It's an honor," he says.

Bucky reaches out, waving slightly, searching, and Clint brushes their fingers together enough that Bucky can find his hand and grip, and shake. "Pleased to meetcha," he says, all charm. "Anyone who can put up with this lunk has my genuine admiration and respect."

Steve grins, ducking his head, and Clint looks surprised and amused.

Bucky lets go of Clint's hand and moves his head around, like he's looking for something. He is exactly the way Steve remembers, so much that Steve could almost forget the blindfold. "Welcome to my humble home," Bucky says. "Let me show you around."

"That's funny because you can't see," Steve says, and Bucky grins painfully bright.

-----

That night, after dinner, Steve goes up to Tony's penthouse with his jacket in one hand. Tony is camped out in front of the coffee table, with what looks like the pieces of a rotisserie oven spread out in front of him. Pepper is stretched out on the couch, barefoot but still wearing her business suit, drinking a beer and reading something on a tablet. Immediately, Steve wants to turn around, but he remembers Clint's words from the other day.

"Steve," she says happily. "How are you doing?"

"I'm well," he says automatically. "How are you?"

Tony doesn't let her answer. "Steve," he says without looking up, "Come here, come see how cool this is." Pepper rolls her eyes, but smiles at the back of Tony's head.

"Uh, actually," Steve says, and fidgets with his jacket. "I was wondering, if you weren't too busy . . ." He trails off.

"Yes, dreadfully busy, as you can see," Tony says, and Steve has known him long enough to recognize the sarcasm and the affection in his tone.

"I was wondering if you'd like to go for a ride."

At that, Tony looks up, and examines Steve. Steve lets himself be examined: the jacket, the tenseness of his shoulders, whatever expression he has right now. "Yeah," Tony says, and glances at Pepper. She shrugs, and taps something on her tablet. "Just let me get my coat, we'll take a car."

"No," Steve says, "I mean, do you want to go for a ride?"

Tony's expression changes to one of delight. "Let me get my suit," he says.

Tony takes him up, up, up, above the clouds, above the reach of light pollution, until there's nothing but the two of them and thin air and the nighttime stars. Steve clings to the back of Tony's suit and stares all around, dazzled.

It's not the first time they've done this. A few months after the battle of New York, Tony started flying up on his own, and after a while he began asking the rest of the team if they wanted to come with him. Steve doesn't know why Tony does it. He doesn't know what Tony saw when he went through the portal, or what Tony's looking for now. To Steve, it's the kind of miracle you just didn't get back home, even with all the amazing and terrible things he saw during the war. To Steve, it's a reminder of why this time and place is beautiful, and why he's happy to be here.

So Steve holds on to Tony's incredible flying suit and looks down at the blaze of lights that makes up New York City, and up at the spill of stars, and tries not to feel devastated by his gratitude. He's always known that the world wasn't gentle with its gifts. Today, right now, he feels it.

-----

Bucky and Clint get along like a house on fire, of course.

"You can do it with anything? Okay, what about the coffee?" Bucky asks, grinning. They are sitting at his tiny kitchen table, not out in public, but Steve still feels his ears burn.

"Tell me about the coffee," Clint says, crossing his arms in front of him.

"Guys," Steve says.

"It's really hot," Bucky says, ignoring Steve.

"That's what she said," Clint tells him triumphantly.

"Ha! Okay, how about the walls?"

"What about the walls?"

"I don't know, genius, I'm wearing a blindfold. What about the walls?"

"Well," Clint says, grinning. "It's kind of a small room."

Steve gets a very bad feeling. "No," he says.

Bucky says, "Definitely yes."

"I'd even go so far as to say, the fit's a little tight."

"That's what she said!" Bucky crows. He reaches up a fist, and Clint bumps it.

Steve says, "That's really not respectful to anybody."

"Okay, okay, what if I made it 'that's what he said'?" Bucky says. "Would that offend your delicate feelings?"

Steve is used to being hassled by the rest of the team, and he still remembers being hassled by Bucky, but it's strange and uncomfortable to have both at the same time. "Do whatever you want," he says, glaring into his coffee cup.

"Your face is whatever I want," Bucky says.

Clint chokes on a mouthful of coffee and sputters all over himself.

"That doesn't even make sense," Steve tells him.

"Sure it does," Bucky says, and refuses to explain. They stop being bawdy, though, thank the lord.

-----

Bucky and Bruce don't have much to say to each other, but they seem to like each other well enough. Steve wonders about it, until he comes back to the living room after getting a glass of water, and finds Bruce explaining about the Hulk.

"Sometimes I can choose to let him out," Bruce is saying, in that quiet painful way he has. "Sometimes, I guess he gets a little antsy. It doesn't end well always."

Bucky is quiet for a long time, and then he says, "Yeah." The word is soft and heavy with meaning.

-----

Bucky loves Tony. "You musta given Howard conniptions," he says gleefully, while Tony is elbow-deep in his mechanical arm.

Tony pauses for a minute, and takes the screwdriver out of his mouth. "You sound like you approve," he says suspiciously.

"I definitely approve," Bucky says. "Conniptions are good for the soul. Is it supposed to pinch like that?"

"No, no pinching, pinching is not good," Tony says, and digs around among the wires. Steve lets out a sigh of relief.

-----

Steve comes in one morning and is informed that Bucky is refusing to put the mask on, refusing to see any visitors. "Yesterday was a bad day," one of the doctors tells him.

"What does that mean?" Steve asks.

"I'm sorry, I can't be more specific. You'll have to ask him yourself. Just … be gentle with him."

Steve wants to say I always am, but the doctor is already gone. He goes over to Bucky's door and says, "Hey, Bucky, you want to let me in?"

Steve hears a rustling sound behind the door, and the sound of footsteps. Bucky says, "Today's not a good day, pal."

"Come on, just a few minutes. Put the mask on. I'll make you some coffee."

There's a long pause, and then the door unlocks and drifts open a bit. Steve steps inside and shuts it behind him.

Bucky must have been sloppy putting the cowl on. His hair is sticking up a little in back, and there's a red mark along his nose. He's holding a kitchen towel in his hands and twisting and untwisting it. Steve He doesn't move when Steve comes to sit next to him on the couch.

Neither of them speak for long minutes. Steve counts his breaths until he gets to a hundred, and then starts over again, and again. There isn't even the sound of a ticking clock to keep them company, just his breath and Bucky's breath and the sound of cloth twisting against itself. Finally, finally Bucky speaks.

He says, "I remember falling, did I tell you that?"

Steve flinches, and for a moment he can't talk. Then he says, "No, you didn't tell me," his voice shaky and hoarse.

"I, uh, my memories don't feel real sometimes, but today they." He stops, and licks his lips. "I don't remember the landing, I'll tell you that much. And then I woke up, and it was like I was back in that Hydra base: men speaking some funny language, trying to get something outta me. I broke so easy, it's like I wasn't even trying."

"Bucky, oh my god," Steve says, and reaches for his flesh and blood hand. Bucky yanks his hand out of Steve's grip and goes back to twisting and untwisting the towel.

Bucky says, "And you remember how I told you about Paris?"

Steve swallows, and says, "Yeah, I remember."

"Well, the thing I didn't tell you is that I was in Paris to kill somebody. A businessman. I don't remember why. Maybe nobody told me." He runs a hand over his mouth. "I was proud of myself for a job well done. You hear that? You're too good to be friends with someone like me."

"Bucky," Steve says. He doesn't want to hear this, he doesn't want Bucky to think this. "You're not a bad person --"

"Save it, Rogers. You're a terrible liar."

"No, listen --"

"No, you listen," Bucky says heavily. "I killed kids, did you know that?" Steve feels like he's been hit. The breath whooshes out of him all at once, and Bucky smiles a terrible cold smile. "Yeah, I thought so. Kids, women, it didn't matter. I remember hunting a man through the back alleys of Prague. He was crying, begging me. He begged in three languages."

"Just stop, please," Steve says, feeling desperate.

"I was thinking about it, this morning. You know how lucky we are to be alive? All the things we've seen and done? And you come outta all of this, you're perfect, you're Captain America, and I come outta all of this a killer. I gotta think, there's just something about me, you know? Maybe I was always a killer, and those men just let me --"

Steve reaches out and grabs his wrists, wanting to shake him. They haven't touched since that first hug, and Steve is shocked at how thin Bucky's flesh and blood wrist feels, and the wiry tension of his arm. Steve says, "You shut up, all right? That wasn't you, that isn't what you are." Bucky shakes his head, and Steve brings Bucky's hands up to his face, hoping that Bucky can feel the rock-solid certainty Steve has through muscle and skin. "Bucky, listen to me. You are my best friend, and I know you better than anybody."

"Not so well," Bucky says wildly, and leans in and kisses him.

Steve flails and grabs hold of Bucky's thigh, shocked, and Bucky makes a small noise and licks at Steve's closed mouth, pressing closer, and then it's over and Bucky is sitting back. It couldn't have lasted longer than a few seconds.

Steve drops his hands so they're no longer touching. His mouth burns. He can't think.

"Go home, Rogers," Bucky says. "Don't come back for a couple of days, okay? I need a little time to myself."

Steve gets up without protest, and walks outside Bucky's awful little apartment. He stands in the warehouse space for a long time, one hand pressed to his mouth, his mind completely blank.

-----

The thing is, Bucky never -- they never -- there was Peggy, and Bucky's girls, and Bucky had never said, and.

And now he has Bucky back, after mourning him and moving on, and it's more than he ever thought he would get; it's incredible. But Bucky's head is a problem Steve can't fix, and nobody's heard from Natasha in over a week, and now maybe Bucky wants -- or maybe the kiss meant something else -- and everything is just a damned mess.

When he gets back to Avengers tower, JARVIS informs him that Bruce and Tony are in the garage. That's perfect for Steve, who loves the Bruce and Tony Show. He can sit quietly for hours and watch them bicker and poke at each other and create sprawling towering technology or intricate molecules or equations that map the laws of physics. He's intending to do exactly that, to sit quietly and watch, and try to get his head on straight, but when he gets to the garage Bruce smiles at him, eyes crinkling behind his safety goggles, and says, "Hey, Steve, how's it going?" and Steve's mind goes completely blank and then he says,

"Bucky kissed me."

"What?" Tony drops a wrench on his foot. "Agh, fuck!" he yells, hopping up and down.

Bruce pulls his safety goggles up over his head, and looks carefully at Steve.

"Are you freaking out?" he asks gently.

"Yes. No. Yes. I'm a little confused. Probably." Steve rubs the back of his neck. He wishes he'd just kept quiet like he planned.

Tony gives his foot one last shake, and walks over to Steve, and peers into his face, and nods decisively. "Okay, we're going to the Hall of Gems and Minerals. Get your coat."

"What?" Steve asks.

"Tony," Bruce says, "I don't think --"

"Hey, last time you had a crisis, I showed you shiny things and it helped."

Steve says, "Stargazing isn't --"

"Besides, if I'm going to have this conversation, I want to look at something expensive while I do it."

"That is the worst logic I've ever heard," Bruce mutters.

Steve sighs and says, "Why not? It can't hurt."

Tony manages somehow to clear a path through the Museum of Natural History before they even get there. Steve has been there before, and it's weird to see it so empty. The dioramas of New York State geology and the re-creations of hominid skulls look lonely all by themselves, without little kids and tourists poking around. Tony drags Steve and Bruce into the Hall of Minerals, past the walls of malachite and the giant quartz amethyst and over to the smaller Hall of Gems. "Over here," Tony says, "Come see this," and he takes them past the Star of India sapphire and the peridot and spinel on pins, and down a set of carpeted steps to a dim corner with fluorescent minerals behind glass. He sits, and motions Bruce and Steve to sit, and leans back with his arms out, and makes a regal 'go on' motion with his outstretched hands. "Okay, we're by the fluorescents, that's super romantic. Now tell us what happened."

Steve says, "You really want me to tell this story in public?"

"What public? I cleared the museum."

"Yeah, about that," Bruce says.

"I thought you hated dealing with other people's emotions," Steve says.

"No, I just feel like the Screwball Division whenever anybody tells me anything."

Steve frowns. "Why?"

"The what?" Bruce asks.

"Come on, know your history. Writers and geniuses? Analyzing Nazi propaganda to see whether they had a weapon of mass destruction?"

"And you feel like that because?" Bruce asks, lost, while Steve says,

"I don't think it was wri--"

"I'm the nerd in the back drawing diagrams when I should be analyzing. Who wants to know what Goebbels had for breakfast, anyway? I'm the failed screwball."

Steve shakes his head. "If you say so, Tony."

"Anyway, why are you questioning my motives? You're the one who told me about your gay face-sucking adventure."

Steve covers his face with his hands. "I honestly have no idea why."

Bruce says, "Well, what happened?"

"I don't know!" Steve throws his hands up. "We were talking, and then we kissed, and then I left, and then you dropped a wrench on your foot."

Tony says, "Wait, did you kiss each other, or did he kiss you? And by the way, I want to thank you for this sacred moment. I have never had the opportunity to ask that question before, and now I feel like my life is complete."

Steve says wryly, "I'm glad."

"So, let's get this slumber party started." Tony claps his hands. "Talk to me about this boy."

Steve says, "He, uh," and can't think of a way to explain. It had felt strange and unfamiliar to kiss a man, but beyond that, it was unbelievably strange to kiss Bucky. Bucky whom he'd grown up with, who fed him while he had fevers, protected him when he was bullied, fought alongside him in the war. Bucky, who knew about his feelings for Peggy. Bucky whom he hadn't been able to save.

"We kissed," he says. "I don't know what to think about it."

"Do you, ah, want to do it again?" Bruce asks.

"I don't know," Steve says. "That's the question."

"Yeah," Bruce says.

"Yeah," Steve says.

After a minute, Tony brushes his hands together and says, "Okay, this screwball has definitely failed. How are you with stopping?"

"Thank goodness," Steve says. "Yes, I'm fine."

"Maybe next time you have a bathing suit area situation --"

"I'll talk to Pepper," Steve says firmly.

"That's a good idea," Tony says. "Okay, come look at the meteorite with me. It's much better than diamonds."

-----

The thing is, Steve had always thought that the next person he kissed would be the person he spent his life with. It was a naïve notion when he was growing up, and it's even more naïve now, but he can't help it. It's probably just how he's made. And now, with Bucky, he doesn't know what it means. He doesn't know how to plan.

So for five days he fidgets through grinding confusion, bends some of the not-rebar Tony made him, churns through punching bags and breaks an unknown number of charcoals trying to draw anything but Bucky's face. Then Steve goes back to Hoboken, goes to where Bucky waits in his terrible little windowless apartment, sits down in front of him on the couch and asks, "What did you mean by that?"

Bucky breathes out, and says, "I meant anything you want."

"No," Steve shakes his head, and then remembers Bucky can't see him. "Please don't do that to me."

"I mean it, though. I do."

Steve takes a breath, and then asks, "How long?"

"I don't remember," Bucky says. "A long time."

"Before you fell?"

"Before you found me at that Hydra base. Before I shipped off."

Steve shakes his head again, trying to understand. "But I was, I mean, you saw me."

"You know, when we were in the Commandos I used to miss the old you sometimes. Back then it was like a secret I had all to myself, how beautiful you were." He says it conversationally, as if he were talking about real estate or the subway system, and not, not.

Bucky reaches a hand out, waving it, and Steve brushes it with his arm. Bucky grabs onto his arm, and then his shoulder, and then his face. Bucky says, "Do you know, after you leave -- every time you leave, after the doctors have taken my mask off, I walk around this place and try to find everywhere you've been. Was your hand on the toaster? Did you lean against the doorway? Where were you on the couch? I haven't seen your face in seventy-five years, not really." He's quiet for a long time, and Steve tries to breathe around the ache in his chest.

"Steve, I want anything. Do you understand me?" Steve shakes his head. Bucky grimaces, and his fingers tighten on Steve's jaw. "If this isn't right for you, I can go back to being your pal, no questions. I'll never talk about it again. Or," Bucky takes a breath, "Or I could spend the rest of my life loving you."

"Bucky," Steve says, helplessly.

"It's your choice, and you've got time to make it. I mean, I've had eighty-something years. Just, whenever you're ready, you let me know."

Steve says, "Can I still visit you while I'm thinking about it?"

Something in Bucky's face changes, and he brings his other hand up to the side of Steve's neck. He sits there for a moment and then lets go. "Yeah, Rogers," he says, voice thick. "You can come visit me."

-----

The tension breaks, not with Steve cracking and throwing himself off the roof of the tower, or grabbing Bucky and running for the hills, but with a swarm of Hydra agents attacking Port Authority and holding a bus full of commuters hostage on the third floor of the garage. Steve will never say this to anyone, but he is passionately grateful for the opportunity to punch some people.

It's actually fairly easy once they get there. There are five Hydra agents on the bus, trying to reason with all the cranky people, and twenty Hydra agents standing around the bus and in the terminal. They all seem fairly well prepared for the arrival of the Avengers, but are absolutely unprepared for the anarchy that rains down on them from the passengers inside the bus. As soon as Steve arrives, a family at the back of the bus starts screaming and cheering, and when the Hydra agents all turn to silence them a big man at the front of the bus gets up, picks up one Hydra agent, and throws him down the aisle at another agent. A woman hits one Hydra agent on the back of the head with a rolling suitcase, and a goth kid uses his spiked choker to stab a Hydra agent in the face. The spikes don't break skin, but they shock the heck out of the Hydra agent, allowing him to be tackled by a couple of other goth kids and tied up with what looks like wallet chains.

Steve watches all of this with intense pride in the beautiful fierceness of his fellow New Yorkers. He's interrupted by a gunshot graze along his arm, and he turns to see a big goon barreling toward him, holding a mean-looking rifle. It is, Steve thinks, absolutely perfect.

He pounces on the Hydra agent, ignoring the burn of another graze, this time on the side of his torso. He grabs the gun and yanks it out of the man's hands, swings it around and slams the butt of it into the man's face. The man goes down and Steve jumps on him, punching his chin, the side of his head. The man reaches a hand up to stop him, and Steve breaks his wrist, and then breaks the other wrist just to be sure. He punches the man again, and again, and again, and it feels so good to just fight someone, to be able to do something.

Later, Steve will wonder if he would have beaten the man to death. Later he will be ashamed of himself, but right at that moment he feels only satisfaction. He's just getting into a groove when a big metal arm comes out of nowhere, loops around his chest, and lifts him off.

"All right, Captain," Tony says. "That's enough, now."

Steve doesn't answer, just clenches and unclenches his fists, gasping.

The Hydra goon on the ground moans and spits out a tooth.

"Yeah, you shut up," Tony says. "I have exactly zero sympathy for you, sir. Come on, Cap, the police have this." He drags Steve away from the Hydra agent, toward the door of the terminal. Steve comes back to himself enough to look around, and he cringes a little; Clint and Bruce are staring at him, Bruce wearing a Port Authority Security poncho and the wreckage of his shoes. The people on the bus are staring at him. A couple of them are filming with camera phones, and Steve knows he's going to catch hell for that later.

He brushes Tony off and walks away from them, farther into the dim garage, where he can get a hold on himself. The skin on his knuckles is bruised and split, and he is still breathing hard. He stands there until he hears the police start to unload the bus, and then he finds a random door into the terminal and takes the back stairs down to street level by himself.

-----

He is sitting in the mess hall at the SHIELD base in Hoboken, cradling a cup of coffee in his trembling hands, when Li comes and sits down across from him. He musters up a smile from somewhere, and says, "I haven't seen you in a while."

Li seemed to drop off the face of the earth right around the time that Bucky put on his mask. Steve didn't even notice at first, too wrapped up in Bucky and his own feelings. Then later, when he did notice, he didn't know how to go about finding her with the level of care that she found him.

Today, he looks at her, and waits, because he doesn't have anything else. Something tilted inside of him when Tony pulled him off that Hydra agent. He hasn't let himself speak to the other Avengers; he hasn't been in to see Bucky. But he's here, drinking coffee, and he can wait for this woman who was once his student, and who has since become more than he could ever have hoped, to talk to him.

After a minute, Li shrugs and says, "Will you come for a walk with me?"

They go out, and Li takes them away from their usual meandering route, right into the busiest street, through the largest crowds of people. After about ten minutes, she turns to him and says, "I heard from Ofelia Alvarez that she'd taken a leave of absence. She went to Europe, to Latveria, to do a little research."

She looks at him and raises his eyebrows, and Steve realizes instantly what she means. Alvarez is helping Natasha track down the people who took Bucky.

He feels, suddenly, as if he's about to cry. He stops walking in the middle of the crowded sidewalk, puts his face in both his hands, and presses hard at his temples, his cheeks. "Amy, why are you doing this? You, and Andrew, and, and Ofelia."

"And Fast," Li says

"And Richie, why are all of you? I haven't been your teacher for years, I haven't done anything to -- I haven't done anything." He drags his hands through his hair, and then covers his face again, breathing harshly.

"Captain," Li says. "Steve. Come get some coffee with me." She pulls him over to a little café, sits him down, and orders for both of them. She fusses until the coffee comes, and then she doesn't speak for another minute. Steve feels calmer just sitting there, waiting for her to explain, but he's still right at the edge of maybe falling apart. Then Li says, "Did I ever tell you about my grandfather?"

Steve frowns. This is not what he was expecting. "No, you didn't."

"Chester Marcus Hopper, if you can believe that name. He was with the 107th, during World War II." Steve puts his cup down and stares at her. "He used to tell me stories about it -- nothing too heavy, you know, but he always loved telling me about the time Captain America saved his life."

Steve says, "Was he, uh."

"Nobody you knew, I don't think. He only knew you from that walk through the woods. But he told me all the time when I was younger, that you were the reason he was still alive. It's why I became a SHIELD agent."

"Amy," Steve says.

She waves him silent. "My best friend Sasha never trained with you. I met her after I finished your program. She's stationed in Nebraska right now. You know that break-in they had last year?" Steve vaguely remembers hearing something, and he nods. "She saved herself and six of her colleagues using defensive strategy I taught her. I learned it from you."

Steve lets out a breath and sits back, and keeps watching her. She takes a small sip of her coffee, and then says, "But even if you hadn't saved Grandpa, and even if my friend had gotten hurt -- I would do this for you."

"But why?" Steve asks, and that's always been the question. He's a failed screwball, just like Tony, because he has never understood why people would follow him, and especially not after he saw Bucky fall off a train and disappear into the cold.

"I can't answer that," Li says. "I mean, okay, I could make something up. You'd do it for me, you're a good leader, that's what makes a team, blah blah. Really, I don't know. I just would. And so would anyone else you know, Captain. If they know you, it's a sure bet they'll do this for you. You should get used to letting them, because I don't think it's going to stop."

Steve blows out a long breath, and watches her. She looks calmly back. "Okay," he says finally.

Li looks surprised. "Okay? Just like that?"

"Well, no, not just like that." It's a lot to take in. But then, everything that's happened this past month is a lot to take in. What's one more revelation?

Li grins, and finishes her coffee. "I have to get back to work. But I'll let you know if I hear anything from Ofelia."

"Thank you," Steve says, grabbing for her hand.

She gives his fingers a quick squeeze, and walks out.

After she leaves, Steve sits and thinks for a long time, while around him businesspeople laugh and argue, and college students pile their little café tables high with books, and the day creeps by. He thinks about Tony flying up into the portal with a nuke, and Natasha traveling somewhere in Latveria. He thinks about Peggy, brave, smart Peggy, comforting him in a bombed-out bar, saying, "Give him the dignity of his choice." He thinks about teams, and families, and about all the ways he tries to give, and all the ways he's uncomfortable with receiving.

Then, he gets up and goes to find Fury, to ask if Bucky can come visit Avengers Tower for a day.

-----

"I'm glad you came to see me," Fury says, and Steve immediately feels a sense of foreboding. "We've made some progress on Sergeant Barnes that I think you'll be interested to know."

"What have you learned?" Steve asks.

"Not a lot, but enough," Fury says. "Over the last month, our doctors have gained overwhelming evidence that it's only the Latverian sleeper programming we have to worry about. Once Agent Romanoff finds the stragglers from that dissident group --"

"Natasha?" Steve asks, startled

Fury raises an eyebrow. "Your little telephone knitting circle is surprisingly informative when it comes to things like that."

"Uh, I don't know what you're talking about," Steve says, off-balance. He wishes he were a better liar, or any kind of liar at all.

Fury gives him a look. "Yes, Captain, I know about the group of mid-level SHIELD agents, who coincidentally were all trained in your Defensive Tactics program, who used SHIELD resources to get you information on Sergeant Barnes's whereabouts in the first place," he says drily. "I know about your lunches with Agent Amy Li, and the leave of absence Agent Ofelia Alvarez took last week to fly unexpectedly to Europe. I am also aware that the sky is blue and ice cream is delicious."

"You don't seem upset about it," Steve points out. "If I were in your place, I might worry about divided loyalties." He has no idea what Fury worries about.

Fury sighs, and a little of the fight goes out of his expression. "I made a mistake, not telling you about Barnes. Some of my people fixed that mistake. They also went above and beyond the call to try to solve the problem that Barnes presents. These agents' loyalties aren't divided, they're augmented."

"Oh," Steve says, feeling like Fury has somehow given him a gift.

"Now," Fury straightens and brings his hands together, all business again. "This is good news for you, because it means that if you can convince Barnes to leave with you, I don't need to send eighteen bodyguards with you on your little play-date. You have twenty-four hours, starting at," he checks his watch. "Eleven hundred."

"Thank you, sir," Steve says, meaning, as he always seems to these days, thank you for everything.

Fury waves a hand at him. "We've got some glasses and a hat for Barnes to wear over the cowl. They should make him look like a civilian instead of a former Russian assassin."

Steve stares, because that means Fury's been thinking about this for a while, which might mean he's seen the footage of Steve and Bucky kissing, oh dear. But that doesn't bear thinking about. He nods his head like a puppet, says, "Thank you, sir," again, and gets out of Fury's office before Fury can flip Steve's understanding of the world any more.

-----

Bucky is ecstatic to be outside. "They have trains for everything," he says, happily settling into his seat on the PATH train. Steve fidgets, waiting to be recognized, but nobody is paying any attention to them. In fact, with the way Bucky is acting up, people are going to great lengths to ignore them completely. Bucky is shameless. He turns his head to soak up every sound, and grins at the automated announcements, at the crush of people, at the feeling of the air around them. He doesn't seem to notice the smell, or doesn't care.

Steve brings them up to Columbus Circle and walks them into Central Park, past the horses and the pedicabs and the businesspeople eating their lunches on the fountain steps. He tries to remember to warn Bucky about turns and changes in elevation, but Bucky is marvelous at getting himself around. He seems to know exactly when they're going to go down a fork in the path through the park. Bucky says, "Listen, Steve, somebody's playing music," and drags him over to where a jazz quintet is playing "Take 5" in the shadow of a huge boulder.

"What is this?" Bucky asks. "Is this jazz? Is this what jazz is like in the future?"

Steve says, "You've seen more of the future than I have."

"Not music, I didn't pay any attention to music. This is amazing." He has a huge smile on his face, and is leaning toward the quintet like a plant leaning toward sunlight. Steve looks at him, mouth open to reply, and realizes that he's in love.

"Steve? You know what this is, right?" Bucky asks, and Steve stares at him helplessly. He is in love with this man, who remembers killing children but can smile at jazz music in Central Park, who has done nothing but try to take care of Steve and protect him since before Steve can even remember. Steve loves him and loves him and loves him.

"Steve?"

Steve shakes himself. "Yeah, Bucky," he says, voice shaky.

Bucky's face changes, smile fading, and Steve thinks no, don't stop smiling. He takes Bucky's arm and pulls him away from the musicians, over the grass to an empty bench, and sits them down.

"Bucky," he starts, and Bucky holds up a hand.

"No, first let me. I gotta thank you for putting up with me this whole time. It probably wasn't, well, it couldn't have been fun for you."

"What?" Steve asks. "What are you talking about?"

"Just let me finish. I think they're gonna let me out soon, and I can get an apartment somewhere, get outta your business --"

"No."

"I know I'm not, not a good man, like you," Bucky says, sounding pained, and that's just the final straw for Steve.

"Bucky, shut up," he says, and leans in and kisses him.

It's the fourth kiss of Steve's entire life, and it's pretty fantastic. Bucky brings his hands up to cup Steve's face, and leans in and tilts his head so they fit together perfectly. He bites at Steve's lips, pressing one finger to the corner of Steve's mouth to slowly push it open, and brushes his tongue against the tip of Steve's. It makes Steve gasp, and Bucky kisses him open-mouthed and deep and wet like Steve didn't even know was possible. This is not an outdoor, declare-yourself kiss. It's a bedroom kiss, a married kiss, and Steve feels his face turn bright red even as he leans into it. When Bucky begins to draw back, Steve follows him, kissing him quickly once, twice, loving the softness and the taste of Bucky's lips. Yes he thinks, the rest of our lives will be just fine.

Bucky sits back, breathing hard, face pink, and says, "Well, uh."

Steve straightens his hair and his shirt, and tries to calm down. "Bucky, I would like it very much if you would let me take you to dinner."

Bucky grins. He says, "Or we could go back to your place and you could get lucky."

"Oh, um," Steve feels a rush of heat, and he really really wants to get lucky, but, "Isn't that a little soon? I mean, I mean I want to do this right."

"Steve," Bucky says, reaching out and touching his jaw lightly. "I think that's fantastic, I really do. But you have paid for or cooked a number of my meals since we were kids, and several times in the past month you have actually helped me scoop potatoes with my fork because I couldn't see. I think we're all set on the food thing. And the taking it slow thing. Because I've waited more than eighty years to get you into bed, and I'd like to do it sooner than later."

"Um, okay," Steve says breathless, "let's do that."

-----

Steve unlocks the door to his penthouse with shaking hands, and pulls Bucky in. All the lights are out except for the kitchen, and when Steve looks over Clint is there, staring, a toaster waffle hanging out of his mouth. Clint looks from Steve's face to his hand on Bucky's wrist, and then lifts his arms in victory and does a little hop. Steve wants to hide forever.

Bucky twitches. "Who's there, is that Clint?"

Clint takes the toaster waffle out of his mouth and says, "Way to go, Barnes!"

"Oh, jeez," Steve says.

"Up top, my friend," Bucky says, and puts his hand up.

Clint marches out of the kitchen, comes over, and high-fives him. He keeps on going, through the hallway and out the door, calling, "You kids have fun!" behind him as the door swings shut.

"Oh, jeez," Steve says again, and hides his face in his hands.

"Hey, hey," Bucky says, laughing. "C'mere." He puts a hand out, touching Steve's waist, and brings his other hand to Steve's arm, pulling it down and leaning in to be kissed. Steve is no dummy, so he kisses back, leading Bucky backwards through the living room and down the hallway to his bedroom.

He says, "You're, uh, going to have to help me out, here."

Bucky says, "I'll help you out," grinning, but Steve wants to make this really good, so he says,

"No, I mean, you'll have to tell me what to do. I've never, uh, done this with anybody."

Bucky stops, gaping, and then leans up and kisses him hard. "I wish to God I could see you right now," he says.

"That's really not the answer I was expecting," Steve says, dazed.

"Then you're a dummy. Come on, get on the bed."

Steve lies down, and Bucky tumbles down after him, so that they're chest to chest with their ankles knocking together. Bucky takes his glasses and hat off, leaving just the cowl, and leans down to nuzzle at the side of Steve's jaw. He reaches down and starts unbuttoning Steve's shirt, licking Steve's neck and biting lightly at Steve's earlobe. All Steve can do is lie there and breathe and try not to fall apart. His body is hot all over, and his heart is racing, and he wants to touch Bucky everywhere. He runs one hand up under Bucky's shirt, feeling the heat of Bucky's skin, the shift of muscles in his belly, the wiry crinkly hair. He runs his other hand up Bucky's flesh and blood arm, and then over Bucky's shoulder, and down the front of Bucky's chest.

He almost doesn't notice that Bucky's gotten his shirt off, he's so distracted with the feel of Bucky's body and the taste of Bucky's mouth. Then suddenly Bucky has both their shirts off, and is leaning back to work on the button of Steve's trousers. He is so, so beautiful. Steve runs a hand over the place where Bucky's metal arm connects with his body, feeling the ridge of scar tissue and the metal bolts under the skin. Bucky stills, seeming to get smaller, and he gasps in surprise when Steve leans up and kisses his shoulder right by the metal of the arm.

"You don't have to do that," Bucky says shakily.

"Shut up," Steve says, and runs his tongue along the skin there. Bucky gasps again, bringing both hands up to cradle Steve's head, and Steve licks along his skin, kissing it lightly, pressing his teeth very gently into the flesh under Bucky's collarbone. Bucky starts to tremble, and his fingers flex in Steve's hair.

"C'mon, c'mon," Bucky says, and pushes Steve back down, unzipping Steve's trousers tugging them off before working on his own. When they're both completely naked, Bucky stands for a moment by the side of the bed, looking at if he's about to run.

Steve says, "Bucky," softly, and Bucky nods and climbs back on the bed. Bucky leans over Steve and kisses him, and then Bucky's metal hand is on his dick and it's the best thing Steve has ever felt in his life. "Oh, my god," he says. Bucky kisses him again.

Bucky brings his other hand down, and the feeling of cool metal and hot skin drives Steve completely crazy. "Bucky, please," he says, not even embarrassed at how low and needy his voice sounds. Bucky grins, and leans down to bite at Steve's neck, working his hands up and down Steve's dick and doing something to the head that make him moan and shake.

Bucky says, "Come on, I want you to, come now," and Steve comes, groaning, feeling the bright rush of it all the way to his toes. He lies there, gasping, while Bucky uses a corner of the sheet to wipe him off, and when Bucky presses a kiss to his lips he kisses back dazedly, off-center and sloppy. He feels so good.

Bucky lies down on his side next to Steve, running a hand over Steve's chest, while Steve gets his breath back. After a minute, Bucky says, "You all right, there?" and there's something strained and tentative in his voice, behind the smile.

"Yeah," Steve says. "I'm great."

Bucky relaxes, and says, "Good, all right, that's good." He doesn't seem to notice that he's still hard.

Steve asks, "How about you?"

"Me? I'm all set. I mean, I wish I could have seen you, but apparently we have time -- uh, um." He stutters.

Steve looks up from where he's idly rubbing at the head of Bucky's dick with his thumb. "Hmm?" he asks, all casual-like.

"I mean, um," Bucky says, and swears when Steve wraps his hand around the head and plays with the foreskin there. "You, you got a plan or anything, pal?" he asks.

"I'm willing to accept suggestions," Steve says.

"I'll suggest the hell out of you," Bucky says, but he's all talk. Steve can do whatever he wants.

He's never been this close to another person's body before, not with license to touch and kiss and smell and look. He rolls Bucky onto his back and leans down, watching the muscle that twitches in Bucky's jaw, the flex of Bucky's arms, the flatness of Bucky's chest and the way Bucky's dick is wet at the tip. Steve wants every part of himself touching every part of Bucky. He rubs his face against the inside of Bucky's arm, biting the soft skin there, while he brushes his thumb over the head of Bucky's dick. He kisses the top of Bucky's pectorals, and licks at Bucky's sternum, a nipple, the valley below his bellybutton.

"Oh, you're not playing fair," Bucky says.

Steve grins. He presses his nose to the crease of Bucky's thigh, breathing in the sharp smell of him, and then Bucky's dick rubs the side of Steve's face and Bucky gasps, and wow, what a brilliant idea. Has anybody ever thought of that before?

He very carefully leans up, holds Bucky's dick in place so his aim is okay, and licks the head.

"Holy fuck, Rogers," Bucky says loudly.

Steve's face gets hot. "Is that not all right?"

"That is, that is so much more than all right but, uh, are you sure you want to?"

Steve frowns. "Do you want me to?"

"Yes! I mean, yeah, that would, um, that'd be nice."

"Then I definitely want to. Just, tell me what feels good."

"Your face feels good," Bucky mutters.

"That still doesn't make any sense," Steve says, and leans back in to lick the head of Bucky's dick again. It tastes sharp and salty and weird and fascinating, and Steve opens his mouth so he can get the whole head inside, trying to be very careful with his teeth. Bucky is making the most amazing sounds, and rubbing at Steve's shoulders with both hands, so Steve assumes this is a good thing. He opens his mouth wider, and Bucky's dick slides in a little further, and then he leans back and lets it slide out a little. Bucky says, "Oh, Christ, that's perfect, please keep doing that," so Steve does.

This is maybe the weirdest thing he's ever done, including getting frozen in a block of ice and that time he accidentally went to a club with a group of drag queens. But it's also one of the most intense, beautiful things he's ever done. The taste of Bucky on his tongue is electric, and he can feel himself getting hard again just from the shape of Bucky in his mouth and the sounds Bucky is making. He's disappointed when Bucky pulls him off, but then Bucky's kissing him hard and coming, and that's all right then.

He keeps kissing Bucky until Bucky goes limp on the bed, and then leans down and kisses Bucky's neck, his throat, the curve of his shoulder. "No, no, come on," Bucky says, and flails his bionic hand out to catch Steve's arm. "Take a break."

"No," Steve says, kissing Bucky's metal fingers. He gets to do this every day from now on, and it's the best thing in the world. "I want to take you to Coney Island to see the Cyclones play, would you like to do that? And the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, Bruce and I go there sometimes. You'll love the future, Bucky, it's perfect for you."

"I'm sure it is. Come lie down with me," Bucky says. Steve inches down the bed until he can rest his head in the hollow of Bucky's flesh and blood shoulder, laying kisses on the skin there. "Okay, now close your eyes," Bucky says.

Steve closes his eyes, and falls asleep immediately.

-----

When he wakes, it's dark outside and rain is hitting the slanted glass window of his bedroom with little pip pip pip sounds. Someone is running a hand through his hair, and he leans into it, almost purring, before he remembers that Bucky is in bed with him and Bucky is petting his hair, and they had sex together and it was wonderful.

"Hey," Steve says, leaning his head up and grinning at Bucky.

"Hey yourself," Bucky says, and scratches Steve's scalp behind his ear.

"Oh, do that," Steve says, leaning into it.

"Nope!" Bucky says, and slaps Steve lightly on the head. "I was promised dinner."

"I'll go get it," Steve says, and gets up to find his pants.

His fridge doesn't have anything in it except a squeeze bottle of mustard and some glass Coke bottles, and Clint apparently ate the last toaster waffle out of the freezer. Steve frowns. "JARVIS, what's the closest kitchen with food in it that has no Avengers?"

"I'm afraid there is no kitchen that meets your criteria, sir."

"Darn." Steve scratches his head. "Is everyone together?"

"Yes, sir, barring Agent Romanoff. Thor has returned. You'll find them in Mr. Stark's penthouse."

"Wonderful," Steve sighs, and goes to the elevator.

He tries to smooth his hair and his shirt down before he gets to Tony's kitchen, but it obviously doesn't work. He gets two steps through the door before he's faced with a round of applause from Clint, Tony and Bruce, and a cheer from Thor.

"Well met, my shield brother," Thor says, coming around the table to greet him.

"Heya, Thor," Steve says, accepting his hug.

"You have shared pleasure with another," Thor says, loudly. "I congratulate you."

"Oh my god," Steve says, mortified.

"Yeah, how was that pleasure-sharing?" Tony asks. He's wearing suit pants and an oil-stained undershirt, and chewing a twizzler. Everyone else looks equally casual, and there is an epic spread of takeout boxes on the kitchen table.

"I'm not going to tell you that," Steve says primly. Tony rolls his eyes, and waves a chopstick at Steve.

"You have obviously just given your business a test run. I am an engineer. Test runs are my game in trade."

"Not this test run," Steve says, but he lets a bit of a smile show and that gets another burst of applause.

"Seriously, though," Bruce says, "I'm glad you figured things out for yourselves."

"Figured what out?" Bucky says behind him, and Steve whips around and stares. Bucky's hair is even more disarrayed than when Steve left the bedroom. He has somehow managed to find the joke shirt Tony got for Steve's last birthday, a blue monstrosity with a moustache and bowtie on it. He had a red mark on the side of his jaw. "Your talking house told me where to find you," he says.

"Figured out you just got laid, Barnes," Tony says. "Come eat something, you must be starving. Did he at least let you take breaks in between go-rounds?"

Steve is stuck somewhere between smugness and mortification. "Guys," he says.

Bucky grins, looking fierce and joyous. "The only reason I'm letting you talk that way is because I am very pleased to be alive right now," he says, and walks carefully forward.

"Here," Steve says, and leads him by the arm to a seat at the table. He grabs a clean plate and spoons out beef and vegetables.

Thor comes back to the table and sits down. "Greetings, friend. I am Thor, comrade of Captain Rogers."

"James Buchanan Barnes," Bucky says, holding a hand out. "Nice to meetcha."

"What is that contraption on your face?"

"It's to keep him from going insane and trying to kill us," Tony says, and Bucky flinches.

Steve hisses, "Tony!" and Tony looks contrite.

"Ah," Thor says, looking back and forth between Tony and Bucky. "You are brave to trust your love, when there are such large and frightening things outside of your control."

"That's – I hadn't thought of it that way," Bucky says. "Thanks."

Thor shrugged. "I speak the truth. There are no thanks necessary."

Somehow everything is easier, after that. Bucky asks about Thor's speech patterns, and that leads to a conversations about Allspeak and Bucky trying to stump Thor with every language he knows. Bucky knows a lot of languages.

Then Tony starts talking about making a translation device, and Bruce says something about Star Trek and Clint says, "Star Wars is better," and Tony is about to throw down when JARVIS says, "There is a guest for you, Captain Rogers."

"At -- what time is it? JARVIS, who is it?"

"Agent Andrew Ragallan, sir. He comes with greetings from Agent Romanoff."

Everyone goes still, and waits while the elevator dings open and Ragallan's steps echo through the penthouse. Steve grabs onto Bucky's hand.

Ragallan walks into the kitchen and pauses when he sees all of them. "Hi, wow," he says. He is wearing casual clothes and carrying a briefcase, and he looks happy and light and completely different than the last time Steve saw him. "I'm sorry to bother you so late, but I figured you'd want this a soon as possible."

Steve looks at him, from his skull-and-crossbones sneakers to the grin on his face, and says, "Natasha found it."

Ragallan nods and says, "It's confirmed. One word, just like she thought."

Bucky breathes out, and leans on Steve's shoulder. "Oh my god," he says softly.

"Agent Romanoff said to tell you that she's still tracking down operatives, which for her is basically a vacation. She'll be a week or so, and she's sending Alvarez home tomorrow. But tonight," he steps forward, and leans down toward Bucky, and says, "Sergeant, just let me," and whispers in Bucky's ear, so quiet that Steve can barely hear a sound.

Ragallan stands up, and says, "It's done."

"What, really?" Bruce asks. "Are you sure?"

"I'm gonna tell Agent Romanoff you asked that," Ragallan says, grinning. "And you won't be happy."

"Andrew," Steve says, and scrambles up out of his chair. He reaches out and shakes Ragallan's hand. "Thank you."

Ragallan clasps Steve's hand in both of his, and says, "Any time, sir."

"Would you like to stay for dinner?" Steve asks, suddenly remembering his manners.

Ragallan grins. "No, thanks. I'm supposed to be cooking for my girlfriend tonight. You're just lucky there are six fancy bodegas between here and Sunnyside, otherwise I woulda left your business until tomorrow."

Steve grins back, feeling like he could fly. "I am lucky," he says. "I'm in your debt."

"No, sir," Ragallan says. "I'm in yours." He looks around and all of them, nods again, and turns to leave. "But I want the whole damn story, or as much as you can give to me. This must have been good."

"That's one word for it," Bucky mutters.

"I'll let you come up with some other ones," Ragallan says, and just like that he's gone.

"Bucky," Steve says, "Bucky, Bucky, you can take the mask off. Here, where's the DNA scanner, hold still." He reaches for Bucky's head, but as soon as his fingers brush Bucky's ears, Bucky is up out of the chair and backing away.

"I don't know if we should trust that kid," Bucky says. "He sounded shifty."

"Bucky, listen to me," Steve says.

Bucky shakes his head. "We haven't, I mean we haven't really talked about anything yet. I might get in the way of your, or you might, you."

Bucky is against the wall now, both hands laid flat on either side, his head tipped away like he can hide the DNA scanner -- like he can hide. The rest of the team is staring at the two of them, wide-eyed, and Steve would be embarrassed to do this here, now, if it wasn't so important.

Steve steps up to Bucky, and cups Bucky's face in his hands. He can't see the fear in Bucky's eyes, but he knows it anyway. He says, "Bucky, open your eyes and look at me."

Bucky takes a breath, and nods, and Steve reaches up to press a thumb to the DNA scanner. He waits for it to beep and flash green, and then he carefully pulls the mask off and drops it on the floor. There is a red mark all around Bucky's face, where the edges of the mask pressed into his skin. Slowly, he leans into Steve's hands, and then, oh, and then.

Bucky opens his eyes.

THE END